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The urban-garden revolution is under your feet
When the First Family paced off their kitchen garden last spring, it was an intentionally political act: Michelle Obama was not only preparing to fill her family’s table with homegrown veggies year-round, but taking aim at childhood diabetes and obesity. As spades turned the soil, she said the garden’s primary purpose was to educate the country’s children about the benefits of a healthy diet. But even when the family was still battling for the Democratic Party’s nomination, a campaign to return such a garden to the White House was well under way. As political rivals vied for their respective party’s embrace in 2008, a national coalition of gardeners called “Eat the View” was gathering supporters to demand that whomever the next president was, they would replant the White House lawn with edibles. Others piled on. A call went out for the longed-for garden to be certified organic. Celebrated foodie Michael Pollan urged the imagined produce be sent to D.C. food banks.
In Bexar County, local writer and cultural voyeur Pamela Price was enjoying a front-row seat to the spectacle as a newbie garden blogger soured on the vitriol of campaign-year politics. As the nation became increasingly mired in Red-Blue polarities, Price, a trained historian and former editor, searched her memory for expressions of universal “American” values, a common ground to bridge the widening divide. “There’s got to be really practical solutions to what we’re facing,” she recalled thinking at the time. “And there’s gotta be solutions that can be pretty much palatable to anybody and we can move beyond the rancor.”
Though Price left her position as managing editor at Country Roads Magazine to concentrate on being a mom, she wasn’t prepared to become just another mommy blogger. (“I just wasn’t that interested in writing about having a child,” she confessed. “I just don’t care about cloth diapering that much.”) Family stories about her grandfather’s garden and her own memories of selling Porter tomatoes for her mother felt important to pass on in a tangible way. And there was the war.
With Iraq devouring American lives and capital, national attitudes had turned against continued petro-entanglements. Independence — or possibly isolation — was in the air. Uber-conservative Texas energy mogul T. Boone Pickens tapped into it with his cry for “energy independence.” His plan to cut the cord with Middle Eastern oil producers through massive national investment in wind and domestic natural-gas resources was tweaked by Republicans, who stumped hard and loud for full-bore domestic-oil production. “Drill Here, Drill Now!” was the new liberation theology.
In selecting her new trans-political standard, Price dug to the roots of American experience in an open call for a return to local agriculture through the planting of Victory Gardens, originally popularized in the United States and Europe during World Wars I and II.
After all, the United States, until the middle of the last century or so, had been very much an agrarian society. Price’s grandparents had largely supported themselves by gardening. It was an important activity to her mother, as well. And as a new parent, Price had also been searching for some way to share that multi-generational experience with her young son. She launched her blog, Red, White, & Grew, dedicated to Victory Gardens and other “bipartisan, patriotic acts in an age of uncertainty.” She had no way of knowing that San Antonio — with some of the nation’s highest hunger and obesity rates — was about to burst into bloom through dozens of community gardens and a variety of programs that seek to teach local residents how to tease healthy food from the earth. She wondered: “How do I talk about this garden stuff? How do I tie it to my child?” She needn’t have worried. It was a question many others were asking as well.
Thanks to social-media tools like Facebook and Twitter, Price quickly connected with many of the local-food philosophes from all points of the compass. From this fertile bed of discourse sprung the Obama’s garden. “Good ideas replicated themselves rapidly,” recalled Price. “The right people who had enough background to frame it and tell why this matters were all sort of ready, and ready to jump on this technology.” From the start, Price found herself part of a concerted, though decentralized, national push for the resuscitation and restoration of personal freedom. Not from foreign oil, but pesticide-laden imports dependent on vast oil-consuming transportation systems. More importantly, a renewed knowledge of gardening meant freedom from ignorance and increased personal security.
As the variety of online gardening campaigns entered 2009, Michelle and Barack were hardly the only new “homeowners” considering breaking ground on a backyard garden. A study by the National Gardening Association found that while 36 million homeowners in the United States had some sort of food garden in 2008, up 10 percent from the year before, that number was expected to grow by 20 percent in ’09 to include 43 million households. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed said they were gardening to have access to better-tasting food. Right after that, at 54 percent, came the economy and hopes of saving money on grocery bills. Forty-eight percent were motivated by food safety.
Waves of food poisonings in 2008 — linked at first to tomatoes and later to jalapeño peppers — sickened at least 1,400 people in the U.S. and Canada, more than a third of whom were in Texas. For Price and many others, that event — following by only two years the recall of E. coli-tainted spinach that killed five — drove home the message that our food network can be dangerously unreliable. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 13.8 million food-related illnesses occur in the country each year, resulting in more than 5,000 deaths. Already this month, there have been 17 food-product recalls by the USDA. These have included salmonella-contaminated jarred fish and instant beef-soup mix, cheeses that tested positive for the potentially deadly Listeria bacteria, and high levels of histamine detected in yellowfin tuna steaks that can cause “facial swelling, rash, hives and itchy skin, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.”
Local food-policy expert Leslie Provence would like to see food security addressed in San Antonio with the same vigor that former Mayor Phil Hardberger and others brought to Mission Verde, the City’s 11-point “sustainability plan.” “Our food-safety system is pretty broken, and our health is declining to the point that the military now considers it a readiness issue that we now have so many obese young people because of the things that they’re offered and that are marketed to them,” Provence said.
Without a clear focus on regional agriculture, Verde, which covers building-construction goals, clean renewable power sources, and mass transit, could more properly be considered a city-wide energy plan. If true sustainability, the ability of a people to live well without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to do the same, is the goal, Verde has a glaring hole: the human appetite and the industrial-scale system that feeds it.
If local foods were overlooked in Hardberger’s City Hall, they may break into the discussion through a collaborative anti-hunger initiative whose hope is to make San Antonio the first “food secure” city in the nation — possibly by 2012. The Texas Hunger Initiative was launched recently by the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission and Baylor University’s School of Social Work and quickly gained the cooperation of the Texas Department of Agriculture, USDA, and a variety of local organizations including United Way San Antonio and San Antonio Baptist Association.
Current estimates hold that as many as one in four children in Bexar County lives on the edge of hunger, either missing meals or forced by poverty to eat unbalanced diets. THI Director Jeremy Everett said San Antonio is considered 80-percent “food secure.” That 20-percent gap represents a shortfall of about 150 million meals per year, or an investment of $320 million. A large portion of that (about $250 million) could be met by increasing the distribution of food stamps to thousands of families who are eligible to receive them but not yet enrolled in the program. Local food could play another vital role, Everett said. “We love seeing the creative response of urban gardening happening,” he said. “It’s one of those things that — it’s happening; it’s happening all over the state. The benefit of kids participating in growing their own food: They’re learning how to do it.”
If local agriculture becomes part of the response to hunger, the challenge will become moving families into food-production mode. If that seems daunting, consider that of all the reasons people cite for digging in — money strains, fears of impending oil shortages, distrust of Big Agriculture, newfound enthusiasm for self-reliance — it is still taste, to steal from a burger-flipping jingle, that is king. Home gardens have, or are perceived to have, that advantage. That’s what inspired Sylvie Shurgot to lend her hand to a community-gardening effort a block west of Dignowity Hill Park on San Antonio’s East Side.
The ginger-haired Shurgot moved from Germany to San Antonio in 1996. A child of Belguim’s rich local markets, she was immediately stung by the lack of fresh produce. “Living here was like a wasteland. It was like, ‘Is that a tomato?’” she said. A co-worker at St. Mary’s University turned the mathematics professor on to some of the local growers he frequented around the city’s fringes, but she had a heck of a time tracking down others. For that reason, she started cataloguing every grower she could find in a 40-mile radius, with 70-mile-distant Fredericksburg thrown in for its highly prized peaches.
Today, tracking down a reliable source of veggies, eggs, and meats, is as simple as perusing her website, sanantoniofoodshed.com, an online compendium of regional growers. But her work didn’t stop there. Shugart started gardening in her backyard and later joined a group of Eastside residents in creating a community garden funded in part by an $8,000 grant from the suddenly ubiquitous Green Spaces Alliance.
As gardens go, it’s a deftly engineered work. Raised beds are linked by a paved walkway and ringed again with crushed granite. A handicapped-accessible bed lies unplanted at half the height of the others. “We really get to meet neighbors that we wouldn’t otherwise meet,” Shugart said. “We work together, plan together.”
Shugart plans to donate the share of veggies she can’t use to the Catholic Worker House, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen next door. Likewise, one Westside garden has also expanded from an educational center and garden outreach into a service for the needy. Andrew Willems is busy teaching the basics of home gardening at a community center near the intersection of Martin and Zarzamora. He first came to San Antonio from southwest Kansas as a member of the Mennonite Voluntary Service. After a year running an after-school program, he expanded into a part-time job with Time Dollar Community Initiatives, an innovative program that allows cash-lite residents to trade their time and expertise to meet their needs and the needs of their neighbors. Through Time Dollar’s alternative economy, volunteers are able to bank the hours they volunteer and trade them for future assistance from fellow members.
On a recent weekday morning, a youthful Willems is inspecting the half-dozen raised beds installed by Green Spaces Alliance. He allows a monstrous yellow and black caterpillar to chew down the cilantro, which has begun to flower. “Soon she’ll be a butterfly and pollinate this place,” he says. “There’s all sorts of stuff you can buy, but to garden it doesn’t take too much.”
The heavily shaded yard is perhaps less than ideal for a working garden, but the large barbecue pit in the corner suggests the church leaders who donated the property don’t mind the vegetable-limiting canopy. Because of the limited sunlight, the garden serves mainly as a demonstration site, but on Mondays, the only day the food pantry at the Presbyterian Church across the street is closed, the produce is cut and distributed to hungry families in the neighborhood. In the past year, Willems has installed 22 square-foot gardens at nearby residents’ homes. “We’ve never really advertised that we build gardens, but we still have folks coming in,” he said.
Square-foot gardens are raised beds separated into square-foot sections that use 90 percent less water and 80 percent less space than traditional gardens. Willems recommends particular plant partnerships that assist each other by modifying the soil chemistry and even warding off some pests. Through the Time Dollar program, two hours of volunteer time and $5 can put a portable garden at your home.
“There is just a huge interest in gardening all of a sudden,” Willems said. “Some people, it may be the economy. Some people, there’s been all sorts of E. coli in the food; they just want healthy food. It seems everywhere I go there’s people interested in gardening.”
It’s not as if Hardberger slammed the door on food. He just passed it off to his wife. Linda Hardberger launched the city’s most prominent community-gardening initiative through the Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas. In two years it has grown include 25 sites around the city and plans to reach 50 by 2013.
Angela Hartsell, the garden initiative’s program manager, said a big part of GSA’s success is due to finding those few individuals that still know how to garden. “In every group I work with there is a handful of people in that group, in the larger group, that their grandmother, their mother gardened. They haven’t been gardening recently, but they remember how to do it. But that’s just a handful of the people. A large portion of the population has been remote for generations from gardening. They don’t remember how to do it.”
For that reason, the bulk of Hartsell’s workshops in 2009 were geared toward leadership development. This year, with the gardens established, she’ll shift toward the mechanics of plant husbandry itself.
Hartsell said the community-gardening movement has been inspired by larger cultural shifts, from the global recession’s reminder that frugality rather than unrestrained consumption is a virtue to the “green” movement’s avowed interest in reconnecting with nature. “With that, there’s a lot of new knowledge that’s being shared about healthy eating and healthy lifestyles in general. In just these past couple years I think the economy has been an influence on people. They see the potential in supplementing the food that goes on their dinner table with food that they grow themselves.”
While most of the city was distracted by Fiesta frivolity or agonizing over Spurs’ guard Manu Ginobili’s broken nose, two small groups gathered in late April to discuss gardening techniques and clandestine wildflower dispersal methods.
The Roots of Change Garden Cooperative, planted in celebration of the 2007 defeat of plans to store diesel fuel on the East Side, is thick with greens behind the Southwest Workers Union’s Commerce Street offices. Organizers inside are deep at work melding inner-city agriculture with their long-standing press for environmental justice. Climate Justice Organizer Marisol Cortez is reviewing a list of films she hopes to bring to San Antonio to help educate the city about the disparity between those parts of town that have easy access to healthy foods and those held virtual prisoner to the worst trappings of industrial agriculture. The latter are the “food deserts” of San Antonio, where convenience stores and strip malls offer an overabundance of corn-syrup solids, refined sugars, and hydrolyzed vegetable oil, but fresh produce may be a long bus ride away.
In late May, Cortez hopes to screen Food Inc., a documentary about the many failings of our contemporary food network and various efforts to set it right, as part of a community discussion on food, diet, health, and justice. Cortez and SWU’s Food Justice Organizer Diana Lopez, are working with members of the local Food Not Bombs chapter, Fuerza Unida, and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center to host the event, perhaps to be followed by documentaries like Flow, The Garden, Garbage Dreams, Burning the Future, and A Convenient Truth.
At a Saturday afternoon workshop at the Collins Garden Library, a handful of residents batted about notions of food and equality with Cortez and Lopez and discussed how national and local food policies and practices relate to problems of hunger and health. Talk soon coalesced into the inevitable questions about the economic forces that encourage our continued reliance on industrially produced, highly processed foods. “If the Earth is sick, then we’re sick,” Cortez said.
One heavily tattooed participant talked about his gardening experience as mind-altering. “You think of work as having a job, clocking in, getting a paycheck,” said Donnie. “Whenever you’re working with nature, nature goes at its own pace. It feels more gratifying. Everything just slows down, and you’re more in touch.”??
Gardens are one thing in bucolic suburban settings, but they become something else flowering in the face of decades of concrete and asphalt intended to lock them out. That resistance gets even more radical when it threatens to transcend boundaries of land ownership, and abandoned inner-city lots are seized by guerrilla gardeners with hoes and rakes. Lopez described those who engage in gardening as participating in a power struggle. “They’re sort of taking power, putting it in the earth, and back into themselves,” she said. “You don’t have to go to Central Market to buy more expensive foods than what you have right in your neighborhoods.”
Outside the library, the group learned how to mix clay, soil, seeds, and water into “seed bombs” that can be stomped into sidewalk cracks or tossed into empty lots to reintroduce life back into the most bleak cement settings. It’s this type of conversation that Provence, who wrote her master’s thesis on the intersection of urban gardens and public housing around the country, wants to integrate into the Hunger Initiative’s work in San Antonio. Just as the production of electricity is moving toward a decentralized model — from a handful of power plants and spooling transmission lines to thousands of neighborhoods creating their own power with solar, wind, and microturbines — agriculture may do likewise if the vision promoted by the likes of Shugart, Price, Lopez, and Provence plays out.
After the launch of what Provence describes as an “emergency” summer feeding program by the Texas Hunger Initiative geared toward filling the gaps left by a failing state food-stamp network, THI will start debating ways to ensure that all San Antonians have access to three meals a day. Provence wants community and home gardens to be a part of that conversation. “I think we’re having to turn a corner in that we’re having to take back our food system just so we can live a lifespan and live a life we want to live in terms of quality,” she said.
When San Antonio’s food conversation begins in the late summer or early fall, topics will likely include the problem of food deserts and the location of grocery stores. “Do we want to have mobile groceries? Do we want to have bodegas? Does H-E-B want to go into those neighborhoods where they stopped serving … or the inventory is not very fresh?” Farmers markets may find themselves challenged to serve those who rely on food cards and coupons. Other efforts could be made to bring local produce into WIC-only stores. “It’ll keep a lot of people busy for a long time, identifying those issues and figuring out how to resolve them,” Provence said.
As the founder of Garden Start, Matt Ahern has been installing gardens around San Antonio on a pay-per-lot basis for a year. He’s also roped dozens of businesses into his company directory of environmentally friendly San Antonio offerings with EchoTown, a for-profit effort intended to make smart ecological decisions pay off for local companies and himself. But these days the young entrepreneur is working to get his first non-profit venture off the ground by pushing A Garden in Every Home. Through gardening workshops, homeowner consultations, and an easily replicable program, Ahern hopes to give home gardening in San Antonio a kick in the overalls.
“To teach a man to garden would be to give them the ability to have the most economical and healthy food at the same time without assistance from the outside other than to get seeds,” he said shortly before hosting his first training workshop last Sunday.
While only a handful of interested residents showed up to hoe a row at Ahern’s urban plot and compare composts made from kitchen scraps and trash piles, they appeared anxious to put their skills to work quickly. “With this knowledge I plan to actually grow my own garden at home and start producing the fruit at home,” said Elizabeth Rodriguez, a student at Our Lady of the Lake University. “It’s all new information.”
Though new to Rodriguez, what has become a lost art for many of us in the space of one or two generations has also become unavoidable online. Websites about “yard-sharing,” video tutorials on square-foot gardening, even how-tos for detoxifying contaminated soil with mushrooms have flowered across the internet. And yet ubiquity does not equal longevity. It remains to be seen, celebrity gardens aside, if this wayward generation will embrace the earth for the long-term. Price says we won’t know until these millions of new gardeners have seen their crops whither from drought, devoured by pests, or simply fail to sprout at all. “A lot of first-time gardeners make a lot of rookie mistakes. I’ve done it,” Price said. “The question is, do you come back to it again. And we won’t know for another couple of years and the stats come back.”
Is it possible all this talk about independence has found truly fertile ground, stirring a long-dormant seed shared not only by red states and blues states (or North Americans and South Americans) but people across the globe? Like a good historian, Price withholds a verdict, suggesting instead that change is within our power if we choose it. “If we all focus on things that move us forward, personally and culturally, we can change. We can change behavior,” she said. And if the economic unease floating about these days should prove a collective premonition, we may end up without a choice. “We can go without clothes. We can huddle together. We can do these other things. But if you don’t know how to feed yourself off the land … or you don’t know how to grow your own, you’re kind of in trouble.” •